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Regional schools say water safe, plan tests to assure anxious parents

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland schools are using bottled water after eleveated levels of lead were found in some schools' water. Regional school officials are trying to assure anxious parents that their water is safe.Most Portland-area schools say their water is safe, but only a handful of districts around the region have routinely tested for lead and other contaminants.

A Pamplin Media Group survey found that very few schools in five counties surrounding Portland have tested for lead in drinking water during the past year. A couple of districts have tested school water in the past two or more years. And most are scrambling to to assure parents that school water is safe as the issue has riled anger among Portland Public Schools parents.

In some cases, Portland-area school districts say water used by their schools is routinely tested by cities and water districts and found to be safe. But, with few exceptions, a large number of schools outside Portland were built decades ago, when lead pipes were used.

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'We need to know'

Portland Public Schools officials have faced angry parents and shouted criticism during the past week as information trickled out about the discovery more than four years ago of elevated levels of lead in water used by at least four dozen schools. The federal Environmental Protection Agency says lead in water greater than 15 parts per billion is dangerous. In some cases, according to media reports, water tested at Portland schools exceeded that level.

Lead can cause long-term health problems in children and adults. Many school buildings — and other public facilities — constructed before the late 1970s could have water running through lead pipes. In some cases, buildings continued to use the more durable lead pipes well into the mid-1980s.

In response, the Portland district has turned off water to all its elementary schools and stacked cases of bottled water in the buildings for children and staff.

The district also has hired Portland law firm Stoll Berne to investigate the district's systemic response to lead in the water and complete a personnel review. Two staff members — Chief Operating Officer Tony Magliano and Senior Manager for Health and Safety Andy Fridley — were placed on paid administrative leave during the month-long investigation.

“We need to know — and the public deserves to know — what happened and how the accurate information about the health and safety of our schools was not immediately available leading to legitimate concerns about lead in our water,” said Board Chair Tom Koehler in a June 2 news release. “We need to know if we have the right protocols in place and where we need to make improvements. We also need to know if there are personnel issues that resulted in this delay of information.”

City water considered safe

Other districts in the region are pushing to assure parents their water is safe. The David Douglas School District sent a letter to parents saying it was “pulling together data and preparing a more detailed report to be released by (June 6).”

Three years ago, the district tested lead levels in all school building water, and found that “specific water sources” exceeded the 15 parts per billion level in 11 buildings. Those sources were “immediately shut off. Sources that have not since been re-piped remain shut off,” according to the district.

“Most buildings had just a few fixtures showing elevated lead levels,” the district wrote. “Buildings with specific sources showing elevated lead levels during initial testing were Cherry Park Elementary, Earl Boyles Elementary, Gilbert Heights Elementary, Gilbert Park Elementary, Lincoln Park Elementary, Menlo Park Elementary, West Powellhurst Elementary, Ventura Park Elementary, North Powellhurst, Alice Ott Middle School and David Douglas High School.”

The district is using bottled drinking water in the buildings.

“The remaining buildings have either since been re-piped, or they have an adequate number of water sources that do not show elevated lead levels,” according to the district.

In Lake Oswego, the school district issued a June 1 statement saying water provided by the city of Lake Oswego and local water districts was safe.

“Given the concerns raised by the water quality issues that have come to light in Portland Public Schools, independent representative sample testing at all Lake Oswego School District facilities will be conducted beginning this week (June 1),” district officials wrote. “We expect to have testing results available within the next three weeks.”

Lake Oswego school officials said Alexin Analytical Laboratories would do the testing. The district also fielded calls and emails from anxious parents mid-week as news stories broke about the lead levels found in Portland Public Schools.

Many of the district’s buildings were constructed in the 1950s and ‘60s. Two schools were built in the late 1940s.

Renovating old buildings

The North Clackamas School District says water used in its schools is considered safe by Environmental Protection Agency standards. The district tested for lead levels in schools in 2002, and plans to test again “during the next several weeks,” based on the concerns expressed in the community and not in response to any government regulation, district officials said.

If elevated lead levels are identified, the district will immediately not allow the water to be consumed and provide a safe water alternative. Once the source of lead contamination has been identified, according to a statement that NCSD posted on its website this week, the district will perform additional tests to ensure the health and safety of students and staff. Lead testing, results and actions will be posted on the district website.

Most NCSD schools were built in the 1960s, when lead pipes were still in use, which is also a problem for Oregon City schools. The Oregon City School District, where the high school is the only school built after 1986, plans to test its schools during the summer for lead levels in the water. That report should be available in the fall, according to the district.

Gladstone's elementary and middle schools were also built before 1986, but tests for lead and copper took place at John Wetten Elementary, Kraxberger Middle School, and Gladstone High School in 1992. No issues were found at John Wetten or Kraxberger, and both of these schools were substantially rebuilt in 1995.

Two minor issues with sinks at Gladstone High School were addressed and remedied in 1993. All water fountains and fixtures with associated piping were replaced at the high school as part of a 2007 remodeling project?.

The Gladstone Center for Children & Families, formerly a grocery store, was completely re-piped when the building was renovated for its present use in 2007-08.

In a letter sent to parents and staff this week, Superintendent Bob Stewart said the process for water testing at all four schools ?was initiated in March, and will be completed by July. He said the district will be following EPA-recommended guidelines for testing of lead in drinking water.?

The Tigard-Tualatin School District has tested since 2013 eight schools built before 1986 (the last year lead pipes were used in public buildings). The district found no elevated levels of lead in the schools.

Forest Grove schools also plan to test for elevated lead levels during the summer break. The district tested water at Gales Creek School and Neil Armstrong Middle School in 2008 and 2009 and found no elevated levels of lead or other contaminants.

The district’s 2010 bond measure included replacing water lines to most of the schools. Eight of the district’s schools and facilities built before 1986 have been renovated or improved in the past 20 years, according to district officials.

Hillsboro schools were tested six years ago, with none of the buildings showing elevated levels of lead (nearly all showed no trace of lead in their water). The district plans to test water in all its buildings during the summer.

Nearly two dozen of the district’s buildings were constructed before 1986. The oldest, Reedville School, was constructed in 1922.

Gresham-Barlow and Reynolds school districts are about to test the water available in their schools, and recent tests found the water safe at the schools in the Centennial School District.

“In light of concerns raised in other school districts in Oregon, the Gresham-Barlow School District is voluntarily testing for lead in the drinking water in all of the district’s schools,” said Athena Vadnais, director of communications, in a statement.

The Gresham-Barlow district expects to have test results ready by June 10. The Reynolds district also is “voluntarily testing drinking water for lead in all of our schools,” said Andrea Watson, director of communications.